Each year, when Montreal's La Canadienne laid out the ads for its line of women's winter boots, it emphasized style and elegance, posing the products in beauty shots on a plain background or a slim leg. This year, the clean image and the legs are nowhere to be found: In their place is a pair of rough, dirty hands. It's a new campaign and a new marketing direction for the company. A heavy shoemaker's apron suggests those hands were responsible for crafting the nubuck ankle boot they hold. In another shot, a high-heeled platform number lies on the floor beside a scuffed and time-beaten leather satchel, a tin of classic black shoe polish and a black-stained rag.
The brand is trying to sell a rootsy manufacturing story to the women who, on average, pay $300 to $500 for boots that stand up to winter without looking like a parka for the feet.
Every pair is made at the 70,000-square-foot factory on rue Paré in Montreal, which houses the company's 130 employees and is one of the few homegrown holdouts in the dwindling shoe manufacturing industry in Canada. "This year we decided to be a little bit more artistic and creative, to try to transmit the handcrafted part of what we do," says co-owner Penny Shuster. "I think sometimes people don't realize, when they put on anything, that there is a pair of hands, there is a face, there is a body behind the product."
Those hands don't come cheap. Like a lot of manufacturing, shoemakers here were beaten out by cheap labour overseas, and big-name brands such as Sorel and Cougar do a lot or all of their production elsewhere. Roughly 93 per cent of the footwear sold in Canada today is made in China, according to the Shoe Manufacturers' Association of Canada. In the 1960s, Canada was home to roughly 190 shoe factories, mostly in Quebec and Ontario. Today, that number sits at only 26. "We are no longer shoemakers in Canada," says George Hanna, president of the association. The exceptions to the rule—La Canadienne, Boulet and Yeti among them—thrive on their ability to specialize.
Shuster also decided to keep the factory here because of ethical considerations; she wanted full control over labour conditions as well as environmental practices. Her Italian-born husband and the company's co-owner, Gianni Lamanuzzi, whom she met while studying design at Ars Sutoria in Milan, buys the leather and all other materials for the boots from suppliers in Italy. But the production happens here, with 700 to 1,000 pairs a day being turned out in a facility that uses no environmentally harsh chemicals. "We could have pregnant women work upstairs and it's not harmful," Shuster says from her office on the floor below the factory. "I have control of what goes into my boots. It's like having a bakery. You make the bread yourself." As with bread and foodie culture generally, artisanal shoemaking has come into vogue, hence the new advertising campaign. But as the industry has waned, so has the number of artisans; to meet the shortfall of skilled employees, the factory doubles as a teaching facility.
La Canadienne has stayed alive in Canada thanks to the U.S. market, which now accounts for 70 per cent of its wholesale business, the rest being in Canada (its online shop and flagship retail store, located in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, account for about 15 per cent of total sales). Some 350 retailers carry the brand in North America, including Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. As important as it is to Shuster to keep the company local, its profitability, and its future, hinges on keeping consumers happy. "The customer has to like her boot," says Shuster. "And then, on top of it, if she knows that it's local and it's made in an ethical way, and there was no child that made the boot, then I think it's just a big plus. But she really has to like it."